Since its inception, Portland’s public campaign financing program has aimed to match candidate’s small dollar donations sixfold.

This means for every dollar the city’s inaugural batch of publicly-funded candidates receive from a Portland resident, they’re expecting $6 from the city. This is true for the first $50 of each donation. 

This 6-to-1 ratio was calculated as the best possible match rate to ensure these candidates, who must accept strict campaign finance rules in return for city funds, can stay competitive against non-participating opponents, who are free to cash unlimited checks from big donors.

But the director of the city’s Open and Accountable Election program, Susan Mottet, said she’ll likely have to lower the match rate if she’s not granted more funding from the city. Meanwhile, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the program, said she is confident the match rate will remain consistent throughout the primary for three of the four seats up for election.

It all depends on how many candidates opt into public financing. As of Wednesday — the deadline for candidates in the general election races to tell Mottet they’re participating — eight candidates are expecting to dip into the $3.5 million fund.

Three of these candidates have already been certified by the program: That includes Sarah Iannarone, an urban policy consultant running for mayor; Carmen Rubio, the director of a Latino advocacy nonprofit vying for the seat left open by Commissioner Amanda Fritz; and, as of this Tuesday, former city and county official Mingus Mapps, running to unseat incumbent Chloe Eudaly. 

Software engineer Seth Woolley and Portland State University advisor Candace Avalos both say they have the 250 donations they need to qualify — they’re just waiting to get certified. They’ll be running for the seat now occupied by Eudaly and Fritz, respectively. 

Carpenter Timothy DuBois, also running for Fritz’s seat, said he expects to qualify, but is still looking to secure about 80 donations before the certification deadline at the end of the month. 

Eudaly was a latecomer. She turned in her ‘Notice of Intent’ Wednesday afternoon.

And a lot more are on their way. 

Mottet said 12 candidates — a number she laughingly called “a little bit much” —  have already told her they’re interested in using the program to run for the seat left open by Commissioner Nick Fish, who passed away earlier this month. Those candidates have until March 24 to rack up enough qualifying donations.

It’s a tight turnaround. But Mottet said the barrier likely can and will be met by a crowd of political newcomers enticed by a seat with no incumbent.

 “The new candidate — if they really pounded the pavement and had people throwing them house parties — absolutely could raise the money,” said Mottet.

In order to make sure there are funds left over for them, Mottet said she’ll need about $1.7 million more in funding from city council. She plans to ask commissioners for the money during the spring budget process. 

How that ask would play out is unclear. Since Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly are both up for re-election, conflicts of interest could potentially leave the decision in the hands of just two commissioners.

Mottet said she’s not expecting the council to give her the full amount, meaning there’s a good chance she’ll need to lower the match rate. She could do that for the general election, the special election, or both. She could also change the match rate for run-off races. 

“We’ll see what we get,” said Mottet.  “It’s frustratingly up in the air.”

She said this uncertainty matters less for races where all candidates are participating in the program, as they will all see their funding fall in tandem. But it brings a special disadvantage to candidates in mixed races, who could see a sudden funding shortfall while their well-funded opponents continue unhindered.  

Many candidates said they felt this exposed an underlying problem with the program: it is not being given enough support or funding by the city to make it a true success. It’s one of the concerns that led the city auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the city’s election division, to refuse to house the system. It’s now under the jurisdiction of Commissioner Fritz. 

Mingus Mapps said he felt creating this program and only agreeing to devote 0.2% of the general fund was “like buying a new car and then choosing not to put oil in it.” 

Mapps said the looming threat of a reduced match rate pits candidates against one another.  

“One of the reasons why I jumped into this race is I wanted to show that public financing can work, so I want everyone out there who has announced their intention to participate in public financing to actually achieve that goal,” said Mapps. “At the same time, if everyone achieved that goal, the program will literally implode.”

Candace Avalos said she was concerned about so much uncertainty arising once candidates had already agreed to place stringent constraints on their donations. The program requires candidates never take more than $250 from a donor, refuse money from PACs, unions, and political parties, and puts a ceiling on how much they can raise ($380,000 for mayoral candidates and $250,000 for commissioners during the primary).

“I think it’s something that we’re going to need to look at in the future if we really want to commit to doing this,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

Timothy DuBois said he was concerned that reducing the match rate mid-election would give an unfair advantage to those who qualified early and had been taking advantage of a 6-to-1 return since October. 

Mottet said the fate of candidates’ match rates will hopefully be clarified after her meeting with the program’s advisory commission on January 30. 

Regardless, Mottet said the priority is to keep the candidates in the loop so they can budget for any shortfall in cash as far in advance as possible.

“Going from 6-to-1 to 5-to-1 four months before the election is a lot better than going 6:1 to 3:1 two months before the election,” she said. “So we just try and keep them informed and let them know what we’re thinking.”